May 13, 2005
You Cant Do That On Television!
by Rachel Fudge
On any given evening, you can turn on the TV and surf past
images that not too long ago were considered too shocking, too politically
contentious or too offensive for national broadcast: interracial couples,
visibly pregnant women, graphic violence, sex, homosexuality, foul language,
even dancing, singing animated feces.
Thanks to the rise of reality TV, it's become acceptable
to broadcast graphic, gruesome images of real or realistic medical procedures
(rhinoplasties, gastric bypasses and autopsies) and gross-out bodily functions
(people eating bugs, worms, and rats; people vomiting).
You'll undoubtedly witness characters both fictional and
real dealing with complicated love triangles, sex, birth, death, betrayal
and more moral conundrums than you can shake your remote at. You might
even catch a comedic skit that openly mocks Jesus and God.
Robert Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of
Popular Culture and Television at Syracuse University, describes abortion
as being "conspicuous by its absence," while in a November 2004
New York Times article Kate Arthur calls it an "aberration."
While the public and political discourse around issues like
gay rights has dramatically increased over the past 30 years and
subsequently become increasingly visible in popular culture the
discourse around abortion and reproductive rights has actually narrowed,
to the point where it has become more difficult to introduce the issue
of abortion on a TV show than it once was.
The Debut of Reproductive Rights
Way back in 1964 nearly a decade before Roe v.
Wade legalized abortion nationally a main character on the
soap opera Another World got pregnant and had what was referred
to as an "illegal operation," which left her sterile. Shortly
after the 1973 Roe decision, Susan Lucci's All My Children
character had soap opera's first legal abortion, with none of the health
or psychosocial aftereffects (sterility, insanity, murder, etc.) that
would come to characterize soap abortions in the future. But the best-known
and most widely viewed pop culture abortion took place in 1972 on Maude,
the All in the Family spin-off starring Bea Arthur as the titular
When 47-year-old Maude, who was married and had a grown daughter,
became unexpectedly pregnant, she opted for an abortion, which was legal
in New York State at the time. (In a sign of just how different the times
were, Maude's producers cooked up the abortion storyline in response to
a challenge from the group Zero Population Growth, which was sponsoring
a $10,000 prize for sitcoms that tackled the issue of population control.)
In the wake of Roe v. Wade, and as the basic tenets
of second-wave feminism seeped into the American mainstream in the '70s
and '80s, serious adult-oriented dramas like Hill St. Blues, St.
Elsewhere and Cagney & Lacey featured abortions every season
or so, as did the occasional soap opera. In the real world, the annual
number of abortions steadily increased until 1985, when the abortion rate
leveled off. In the late '80s and early '90s, in the face of a growing
number of legal challenges to Roe, a smattering of storylines revisited
the specter of illegal abortions, as if to remind us of what was at stake.
On Vietnam War-era drama China Beach, a young nurse
named Holly has an illegal abortion; the show's moral center, leading
character Colleen McMurphy, is a staunch Catholic who disapproves of Holly's
actions. Popular shows Thirtysomething and Cagney & Lacey
addressed the issue more obliquely, often using flashbacks to provide
some distance from the controversial event or using an extraordinary event
like a bombing of an abortion clinic on Cagney & Lacey
to touch on the issue.
Moral Dilemmas and False Alarms
With the rise of the primetime teen soap (Beverly Hills
90210, Party of Five, Dawson's Creek) in the mid-'90s, it was inevitable
that sexually active teen and young adult characters would be confronted
with pregnancy, often in the guise of the Very Special Episode. Enter
the convenient miscarriage.
According to the Alan Guttmacher Institute, some 13 percent
of unwanted pregnancies end in miscarriage, but on TV that number is much,
much higher. The convenient miscarriage goes something like this: Sympathetic
lead character gets knocked up. SLC agonizes over what to do, sometimes
going so far as to visit an abortion clinic. SLC decides that although
she believes in a woman's right to choose (her boyfriend or best friend
most likely feels significantly different, however), she's going to keep
her baby. Moral dilemma resolved, SLC spontaneously miscarries; SLC is
sad but realizes that in the end she wasn't really ready to be a mother
anyway. (Alternatively, the pregnancy turns out to be a false alarm, an
even tidier wrap-up to the dilemma.)
The convenient miscarriage/false alarm remains the most popular
strategy for dodging abortion, as it allows TV producers to congratulate
themselves for tackling the tough topics without having to take an actual
Recently, however, a handful of shows have approached the
issue head-on, even allowing characters to go through with the abortion.
But there is always a measure of conflict and moral crisis: A 2003 episode
of the WB show Everwood turned the issue around, to focus on the
moral dilemma of the doctor (the show's lead character) over whether he
can in good conscience perform an abortion. In the end, he decides he
can't do it and passes the case to a colleague, who does the procedure
then heads off to a priest to confess his sins.
Over on HBO, an episode of Six Feet Under depicted
teenage lead Claire matter-of-factly getting an abortion, without endless
agonizing or moral anguish but in a subsequent episode her aborted
fetus pays her a visit, appearing as a cute infant (a plot device that
wasn't all that unusual, as dead people appear as hallucinations or ghosts
on the show all the time).
And last summer, a two-part episode of the made-in-Canada
teen soap Degrassi: The Next Generation made headlines when 14-year-old
lead character Manny gets pregnant, has an abortion (saying, "I'm
just trying to do the right thing here. For me. For everyone, I guess"),
and doesn't express any regret afterward. Alas, U.S. viewers won't get
to see the show: The Viacom-owned cable channel N, which airs Degrassi
in the U.S., refused to air it.
Today's Four-Letter Word
While Maude's abortion was truly groundbreaking, it inadvertently
galvanized the anti-choice movement. When CBS reran the episode six months
later, some 40 affiliates refused to air it and national advertisers shied
away from buying ad time, establishing a pattern that remains in effect
Even more significantly, after the episode first aired anti-abortion
leaders took their case to the Federal Communications Commission, arguing
that the fairness doctrine which mandated equal time for opposing
views ought to cover not just editorials and public affairs but
entertainment programming too. Because Maude had an abortion on CBS, they
argued, they should have the right to reply on CBS. They lost the case,
but won the attention of the networks.
In 1987, the fairness doctrine itself was struck down; but
by that point, it didn't matter: The networks had established a pattern
of covering their asses by presenting some semblance of balance as way
of diffusing potentially volatile subjects. In the landmark episode, Maude
agonizes over the decision, but her daughter reassures her, speaking in
the language of the growing feminist movement: "When you were young,
abortion was a dirty word. It's not anymore."
But more than 30 years later, as many of the tenets of the
women's liberation movement have become accepted parts of mainstream American
culture, abortion is a messy, if not exactly dirty, word. Back in 1992,
when the sitcom Murphy Brown was hailed for its overt feminism
and its titular character found herself unmarried and unexpectedly pregnant,
the a-word was never uttered. Diane English, the show's producer, said
in a June 1992 Houston Chronicle article, "She would have
used the word many times, but I wanted a lot of people to watch, and certain
words have become inflammatory and get in the way of people hearing what
we wanted her to say." In the end, Brown had the baby, igniting the
ire of Vice President Dan Quayle and disappointing many feminists.
During the battle for abortion rights that culminated in
the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, public declarations were an integral
tactic of the movement. In an effort to overcome the shame and silence
surrounding abortion, women organized public speakouts, at which they
talked openly and honestly about their illegal abortions. Abortion is
a fact of life, they asserted, and it affects women of all colors, class
and religious or political belief. Over the years, however, as the anti-abortion
movement has grown stronger and more organized, the pro-choice movement
has struggled to regain this clarity of speech. Young women who were born
after Roe continually assert that abortion is a private decision,
a private choice that needn't be broadcast an attitude that is
at once true but also extremely politically naive.
Veteran TV producer Diane English acknowledged this back
in February 2001, when she wondered aloud to the New York Times:
"Maybe women...only had to think about their Manolo Blahniks for
the past eight years under the Clinton administration. If women start
to wonder if they will the lose the right to have an abortion, perhaps
that attitude may change during the next four years." Sadly, it seems
like it may take another four years for women to get scared and
angry enough to demand that popular culture reflect their concerns.
Abortion in the Real World
The current state of abortion on TV reflects both mainstream
American attitudes toward abortion and contemporary feminists' discord
over pro-choice strategies. While poll after poll indicates that a majority
of Americans support the upholding of Roe v. Wade, it's also clear
that a majority of Americans have deep concerns and moral conflicts about
abortion. This ambivalence is reflected in the pro-choice movement, too,
as nationally recognized feminist leaders speak of the need to recognize
the agony and shame that accompany abortion.
Given this roiling mass of conflicting feelings and politics,
it's no wonder that an hour-long drama can't get a handle on the issue.
As Syracuse University's Thompson points out, "A lot of people strongly
feel that there's too much sex on TV, but they will have no trouble watching
an episode of Blind Date or Desperate Housewives in their
own home. With abortion, those feelings aren't so easily eliminated in
one's TV viewing. No [networks] want to run the risk of powerfully offending
people on either side [of the issue]." As a result, what we see on
TV isn't likely to satisfy anyone, no matter where they stand. Producers
strive for a form of balance by always ensuring that there's a dissenting
voice of some sort a friend, relative or authority figure who ardently
asserts their anti-abortion stance. To pro-choice folks, TV's take on
abortion seems unnecessarily harsh, moralizing and punitive.
With the exception of the unaired Degrassi episode,
you never see a character undertake an abortion the way many women you
know do: With the utter confidence that she's doing the right thing in
a difficult situation. To abortion foes, TV is littered with anti-fetus
propaganda that leans heavily on the choice angle while refusing to come
out and declare that abortion is murder. It's a no-win situation.
Out in the real world, feminists and reproductive-rights
activists are working to rescue the language of moral values from the
radical right, and using it in this thorniest of issues to present the
decision to have an abortion as a deeply moral one. To name just a few
examples, Jennifer Baumgardner's new documentary I Had an Abortion
and national news articles by feminist activist Amy Richards and novelist
Ayelet Waldman detail their difficult abortion choices. For now, it's
unlikely that TV viewers will ever see one of the Desperate Housewives
unapologetically opting for a second-trimester abortion when she realizes
her fetus has profound genetic anomalies, or one of the lissome gals on
The O.C. sporting an "I had an abortion" baby tee, proclaiming
that ending her pregnancy was the best decision she ever made.
The trashy, ephemeral landscape of pop culture may seem like
an unimportant front in the battle for women's rights, given the injustices
that befall real live women and girls every day around the world. But
as the 2004 election has shown, the U.S. is in the midst of an all-out
culture war, in which public language and pop images are playing a crucial
role in shaping the terms of the debate.
In the struggle to capture the hearts and minds of Americans,
the reproductive-rights movement like the rest of the progressive
movement needs to find new ways to present its case openly and
frankly. Like death and taxes, abortion is one of the world's certainties
no matter the legal status, there will always be unintended pregnancies,
and there will always be women who seek to terminate those pregnancies.
After all, of the six million pregnancies each year in the U.S., half
are unintended; some 47 percent of those unintended pregnancies result
in abortion. And has history has shown us, not talking about it won't
make it go away.
Rachel Fudge is the senior editor of Bitch: Feminist Response to Pop Culture.
© 2005 Discovery
Publications, Inc. 104 E. 5th St., Ste. 201, Kansas City, MO 64106
contents of eKC are the property of Discovery Publications, Inc.,
and protected under Copyright.